Is our content working? Did our content marketing bring us a return? Did our content strategy for a product pay off? You might have asked or been asked a question like that recently. And, if you haven’t, chances are you will soon. Businesses are investing more than ever before in content.

So, how do you answer questions like that? It’s harder than it sounds.

The Challenge of Content ROI

Content Science’s study of content teams found that only 35% of 101 participants in the survey evaluate content ROI (return on investment). I also took a quick poll with about 400 people live attending my recent webinar for Content Marketing Institute, and the result was about the same. Why do such a low percentage of content teams evaluate content ROI? Nancy Watt of SunTrust explains the challenge well:

We look at traffic and what users do when they’re on the site (time on site, specific clicks), but it’s hard to know if the content is what led them to opening an account. It’s hard to give an ROI for content and show that to senior management.

So, ROI = hard. If you’re as busy as most content or marketing professionals today, then you might feel stuck. I get it.

Here’s the thing. We can’t, as a practice or an industry, settle for content ROI being hard and leave it at that. If we can’t bring a return for our content efforts and articulate that return clearly, businesses will stop investing.

So, to help you or your content team get unstuck, let’s revisit what content ROI means and walk through some useful tips and resources.

Defining Content ROI

I’ve talked a bit about content ROI in the face of our changing digital landscape. If you’re interested in the philosophy, check out my column piece Toward A New ROI for Content. For practical purposes, though, I define content ROI this way:

Is the result worth the cost to achieve it?

That flexible definition opens a range of possibilities for content ROI. Let’s take advantage of those possibilities with a few tips.

1. Think Beyond Sales As a Return

Get creative. Think about the role of your content not only in boosting sales or enhancing your advertising but also in reducing the cost of sales, in preventing returns, in decreasing customer churn (if you’re talking about a service) and in decreasing support costs.

Also, consider whether your content creates new revenue opportunities. This can be relatively simple, such as advertising in your digital magazine. Mayo Clinic, for example, has advertising in its digital publications. Or this can be more complex. For example, I know a content team at a large organization that tracks the data and insights they gain about their customers very carefully. The team sells, if you will, those insights internally to product development and other parts of the organization to develop those revenue opportunities. The combination of content and customer data is an invaluable asset.

To help you explore possibilities, I’m sharing questions to consider.

  • Did the increase in sales recoup the costs and more of the content marketing?
  • Was producing and maintaining the marketing / sales content cheaper than a traditional ad campaign?
  • Did evergreen content provide repeatable value (e.g. longer shelf life) vs a temporary ad campaign?
  • Did the content increase the effectiveness of an advertising campaign?
  • Did the content speed up or otherwise enhance in-person or offline sales?
  • Did the content decrease product returns?
  • Did the content decrease customer churn?
  • Did the content decrease support costs?
  • Did the content create a new revenue opportunity?
  • Did changing content production amplify returns from investing in marketing automation, content management, or similar technology?

I’m only scratching the surface here, but you can see the range of possibilities for content ROI. Now, let’s turn to another tip for content ROI.

2. Understand Specifically How Your Organization Earns and Spends Money

This isn’t simply about knowing your organization’s goals or priorities. This is about understanding where your company or organization has high costs, where they are earning high revenue, and so on, right now. Why is this so important? Because I find the most compelling cases for ROI, content or not, are very relevant and timely.

For example, I come across organizations that have invested hundreds of thousands (and even millions) of dollars in content management, marketing automation, or similar technology and are wondering why their investment hasn’t paid off. Usually, one reason is their approach to content. For example, if your content management system can reuse content to improve your efficiency, but your content processes don’t require your content creators to talk regularly, then you will still create duplicate content that wastes time and resources. If your organization is in a situation like this, then anchoring the impact of changing your content processes to gain efficiencies (and, consequently, returns on both your content and the technology), will be compelling

Your organization might be in a completely different situation. My point is the better you understand that situation in terms of costs and revenue, the better you can articulate a relevant case for content ROI.

3. Don’t Wait for Perfection to Start Evaluating Content ROI

Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. You might not be able to track customer behavior from the time customers start engaging with your content all the way through sale. You might be unsure of where you can get data or feedback about your content. You might face other big constraints. But, that doesn’t mean you can’t start making progress.

If you can’t track visitors through sale, make reasonable inferences.

For example, if you launched a new blog or digital magazine and after a few months sales have increased and no other variables have changed significantly, it’s a reasonable inference that your digital magazine had a positive impact on sales. 

If you can’t get exact numbers for your ROI formula, make reasonable estimates.

For example, if you can’t get an exact number of how much a support call costs your company to use in calculating ROI of reducing such calls, then make a reasonable estimate using industry data or your past experience.

Create an evaluation framework to show gaps and get support for filling them.

Make a plan for evaluating your content in a way that will help you calculate ROI. Your plan will uncover the gaps in your organization’s ability to assess content impact—those imperfections. No one will do it for you. If your stakeholders see and understand the gaps clearly, they will be much more likely to support filling those gaps and, in turn, empowering you to assess ROI.

To create that plan, here are some handy resources:

  • I Heart ROI
    Originally appearing in Chief Content Officer magazine, a web version of this useful article advises on the ROI of content marketing.
  • Thinking Big Data for Marketing? Get Your Small Data Right First
    I note the pillars of small data success and offer a checklist that will help you fill the gaps in your small data.
  • Does Your Content Work?
    Why Evaluate Your Content—And How to Start
    This book lays out a framework to turn data about your content, whether it’s for marketing or another purpose, into content intelligence.

Empower Yourself and Your Team with Content ROI

Content ROI is a challenge, but it’s a challenge worth the time and work to overcome. If you or your team do not connect your content efforts to ROI, your work will be marginalized. You will increasingly have to do more with less, which in turn puts you in a weakened position and makes you less likely to succeed. But, if you or your team do connect your content efforts to ROI using the tips and resources shared here, you will create positive momentum. That momentum will empower you and your team with the resources and support to accomplish more than you ever thought possible.

The Author

Colleen Jones is the author of The Content Advantage and founder of Content Science, a content intelligence and strategy firm that has advised or trained hundreds of the world’s leading organizations since 2010. She also is the former head of content at MailChimp, the marketing platform recognized by Inc. as 2017 Company of the Year. A passionate entrepreneur, Colleen has led Content Science to develop the  content intelligence software ContentWRX, publish the online magazine Content Science Review, and offer online certifications through Content Science Academy.

Colleen has earned recognition as an instructor on LinkedIn Learning, one of the Top 50 Most Influential Women in Content Marketing by a TopRank study, a Content Change Agent by Society of Technical Communication’s Intercom Magazine, and one of the Top 50 Most Influential Content Strategists by multiple organizations.

Follow Colleen on Twitter at @leenjones or on LinkedIn.

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